Just a suitcase and $20,000
Counting the dead in Iraq
In 2004 the US-based scientist Dr Les Roberts led a survey into deaths caused by the invasion of Iraq. His results showed that approximately 100,000 Iraqis had been killed after the invasion. He spoke to Joseph Choonara about his survey
Your research on mortality in Iraq, published in the prestigious Lancet journal, made headlines across the globe last November. What motivated you to conduct the survey?
This is about the ninth “hot war” I’ve worked in. In most wars people are killed more by disease and disruption than by bullets and bombs. But when I read the newspaper reports on the war, all I heard about were the bullets and bombs. I didn’t think the reports were describing the suffering of the Iraqis very well.
I thought it would serve the interests of Iraqis if I described what they were really dying of. So, if we found they were dying of diarrhoea we could do something about that.
If they were dying at home in childbirth because they were too scared to go to hospital, we could do something about that. Much to our surprise we found that these things weren’t what they were dying of. Most were dying violent deaths.
Tommy Franks from US Central Command told the press that the US army “don’t do body counts”, despite the duty of care the Geneva Convention imposes on occupying forces. You showed it is possible to make mortality estimates.
Absolutely. I was smuggled across the border into Iraq. I went with just a suitcase and $20,000 in my pocket. All it took was six Iraqis brave enough to do the survey.
During a war things are messy and the Geneva Convention imposes very few constraints. But during an occupation things are quite different.
As I understand it there are obligations for the occupying forces that are similar to the obligations of a police officer on the streets here towards the local population — to arrest them if they step out of line, but to protect them the rest of the time.
Most of the people killed by the coalition were women and children, which implies the use of a lot of force, and perhaps too much.